This morning I was sent a link to a heartening and useful story about Andrew Moffat, a primary school assistant headteacher in Birmingham whose “No Outsiders” policy and lesson plans are bringing the Equality Act to the centre of the school’s ethos and making a big difference. At Parkfield Community School, 23 different nationalities are represented, and the work of Moffat and the whole school ensures that diversity and difference is celebrated, not just in terms of race, religion and colour, but also for sexuality and gender identity.
While I’ve been working on this project, I’ve sensed a fear around what can be taught to or discussed with children in a school or theatre context as being opposed to what a child might learn at home. There’s a clear anxiety around whether we have the right to promote ideas that may counter those expressed by a child’s family. Will it be damaging or confusing to a child if we make a show that says it’s OK to be gay if the audience then goes home to a setting that is against homosexuality for example?
But Parkfield’s approach of basing the work around the Law – The Equality Act 2010 – flips the story and clearly expresses how it is the duty of the school to teach and encourage children to understand Britain’s anti-discrimination laws and how they affect and protect us all. The wonderful thing is that through messages of understanding, compassion, empathy, and respect, the children themselves feel empowered to uphold and embody these equality laws. And even more surprisingly in this example, they create an ethos in which there is no contradiction in believing that gay people should be protected from discrimination, for example, even while their religion as Muslims means that they may believe it is wrong to be gay.
As well as creating this amazing situation in his own school, Moffat offers a website – www.equalitiesprimary.com – and series of lesson plans and resources for teaching Equality in primary schools based around a collection of wonderful illustrated story books. He sees the use of literature as a very useful way to talk about concepts of equality from the emotions felt by the characters in the books. While developing literacy skills, the children are developing empathy and engaging emotionally with the idea of feeling different, feeling left out, feeling like an outsider, without necessarily having to personally identify with the issues presented in each book. For example, a child doesn’t have to be a multicoloured elephant to understand the plight of Elmer and celebrate his path to acceptance. It seems that children’s performance might offer a similar connection.
It’s also important that while some of the books talk generally or more abstractedly about difference and acceptance, (“Frog is Frog” is about a Frog who is at first disappointed that he can’t do things other animals can, but then realises he has his own strengths to be proud of) other books deal directly with homosexuality, transgenderism and non-traditional family structures. Once the children are committed to respecting and celebrating different kinds of people, it seemingly becomes straight-forward to look at any kind of difference with the same compassion. The policy asks the question of the children, “Would X be welcome in our school?” and the answer has to be “Yes” because everyone is welcome in our school.
Of course that seems very simple, but the aim of the work is also to make children aware of the things that might make it difficult for someone to feel welcome in the school. So they teach an awareness of privilege and also the discrimination that people might face in the outside world. So then children are encouraged to be aware of and seek to dismantle discriminatory structures in their own behaviour and in the world around them.
I haven’t seen anything like this before, and particularly not in children’s theatre, but I find it very inspiring. The main point for me is that it centres on teaching the laws of our country and is based around human rights. These things are not up for debate, no matter how uncomfortable they might make some people feel. It is not right or legal for anyone to be discriminated against because of who they are and children need to understand that. If they also engage with it emotionally and look at these laws through their own experiences and feelings, then they can see why it is so important to fight discrimination. They can engage fully in their own responsibility as citizens within a country that strives for equality. And that the same laws that protect religious rights also protect people who’s lives may not be sanctioned by those religions.
Sometimes when you see inequality in the world it becomes difficult to envisage what real equality would look like. Can we actually believe that the gender pay gap could be closed? Can we actually see an end to institutionalised racism? But I find inspiration in the No Outsiders policy and a lot of really useful and practical approaches around these books. I hope more theatre makers can be inspired by and feel buoyed by this work.